At Yale University’s Library Recycling Is The Law April 26, 2010 – Tags: bookbinding, books, Libraries, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Medieval manuscripts, Rare Books, Recycling, Reused Rebound Recovered, Yale University
(Images Courtesy Of The Lillian Goldman Law Library Rare Book Collection, Yale University.)
The bindings of nearly 150 books in the Law Library’s Rare Book Collection show that recycling was second nature among European bookbinders as early as the 1300’s. These medieval artisans reused the materials they had on hand: discarded manuscripts. The strong, flexible, and prohibitively pricey parchment of these documents proved the perfect product for binding new books. What are now considered priceless volumes, dating from as early as 975 AD, were to these craftsmen nothing more than a serviceable source of scraps.
The 14th- and 15th-century works featured in Reused, Rebound, Recovered: Medieval Manuscript Fragments in Law Book Bindings, all incorporate visible pieces of older tomes in their construction. Some of these scraps are so tiny they can easily be overlooked, while others are big enough to cover the entire exterior of a large volume. Many of the fragments have remained hidden for centuries. Only when its cover has fallen into disrepair is the secret source material of one of the collection’s books revealed.
Once exposed, these fragments become a puzzle for scholars and librarians to solve. Discovering the origins of the scraps sheds a little more sunlight onto the Dark Ages. The subject matter, popularity, geographic distribution, changing styles in binding and printing, and evolving script and illustration of medieval manuscripts, are all illuminated by identifying the source texts of each remnant.
Most of the manuscript pieces in the Yale Law Library’s collection have been identified and tentatively dated. The materials chosen for the exhibit bring to light the diversity of texts that have been hidden in the covers of just a small sampling of the collection’s rare books. Examination of the bindings has revealed verses from, and commentaries on, the Bible; liturgical materials, including some with musical notation; passages from sermons; a section of Cicero‘s philosophical text, Dream of Scipio; and, as befits their current home, several slices of legal texts. Most of the fragments are in Latin, but two are from Hebrew texts, two more are in French, and one appears to be in some form of German.
The sources of some of some of the parchment pieces in the exhibit remain mysterious. On March 19, 2010, over 40 members of the Medieval Academy of America were invited to investigate the display, in hopes of identifying the parent-texts of those fragments which remain orphans. Images of the bindings were also made available for viewing online. This clever strategy has paid off, with the resulting clues from scholars being posted on the Rare Book Collection’s blog. Anyone able to make more of these manuscripts illuminated rather than shadowy is invited to contact the exhibit’s co-curators, Benjamin Yousey-Hindes and Mike Widener.